Millions of American Women Are Forced to Work While Sick—Including Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention this summer. Photo by ABC (Creative Commons).

Hillary Clinton has pneumonia. Apparently something has infected her lungs, and apparently it is not Donald Trump’s bloviating, not ash from the Pacific Northwest wildfires, and not the 400 parts per million carbon dioxide levels never consistently seen in Earth’s atmosphere before last year.

Her pneumonia is probably a bacterial infection, she’s taking an antibiotic, and she has already stated she feels better, even as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been taking over her speaking schedule for the last week. To get healthy, she needs to take a few days off from the relentless grind of the campaign trail. For the press, this is nothing short of a ratings bonanza: Rumors are that Hills is dropping out! (No, Cokie, she’s not.) Countless pieces came out in the week after her early exit from a 9/11 memorial event, including more than half a dozen speculative articles from the New York Times alone. Politico even reported on the ridiculous pneumonia-gate reporting, which has generally been ridiculous. What else is she concealing, asks conspiracy-prone Breitbart? (It’s worth pointing out that Stephen Brannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart, is now also the chief exeuctive of Trump’s campaign).

The media coverage of Clinton’s pneumonia is frustrating. But looking at the larger context—women, illness, and the workplace—it also says something important about our culture, history, and economy.

American female workers are caught between a rock and a hard place when they’re sick. To start with, women have been providing childcare, domestic labor, and agricultural work for hundreds of years, industries that traditionally provided no paid sick leave to workers or even much time off from the job. Currently, only five states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Oregon—and Washington D.C. mandate paid sick leave for most employees, although several more state legislatures have similar bills somewhere in their lawmaking stream. In the last few years, some states (including California and Oregon) have begun requiring that agricultural industries offer sick time—although conservatives decry this reform as “killer” to farmers. President Obama’s 2015 executive order allowing federal workers to earn seven days of paid sick time is a step toward better support, but it covers only a fraction of the national workforce.

Sick leave is a feminist issue. Here’s why:

Women workers take more sick leave than their male counterparts
When they have sick leave, women use it 10 times more often than men when their child is sick. Women are also five times more likely to take a sick child to a doctor’s office. (What the hell? Step up, men people!) Some companies have family leave policies in addition to sick leave (or perhaps even something like “personal leave”), but regardless, women are using their available leave for other people’s health needs and often do not have leave left for themselves when they are actually ill. So, women are more accustomed to working while sick. Thus, paid sick leave benefits children as well as the covered worker.

That pesky wage gap makes women more at risk for job insecurity
Women continue to earn less than their male counterparts, and taking time off for being sick means earning even less in a given pay period. Many jobs that do not have paid sick leave also may be prone to terminating employees for taking time off or for seeming to be sick too often, claiming a misuse of workplace policy, even if the illness is pregnancy-related. For millions of American women, going to work sick is their only choice because they can’t afford to lose wages or, worse, their job.

Fields that employ mostly women often have less flexible sick leave
Women in women-led industries, like childcare and teaching, have access to sick leave but often face less flexibility in taking it. Often, teachers and childcare providers “save” sick days for future expected time off, like for childbirth, because while federal law requires many employers to hold a woman’s job and salary level for up to three months, it is not paid leave. Women in nursing, another woman-heavy field, are ostensibly told not to work when sick but are then subtly sent counter messages when they take time off. Medical offices and hospitals often present an individual’s leave from work as a hardship on the rest of the staff.

For these reasons, women are used to working while sick. But far from being a sign of bad judgment on the part of Hillary Clinton, working while sick is a response to a particular set of untenable restrictions and realities around work that affect women across America. The high school teacher who doesn’t want to fall behind on her grading, the retail clerk who fears she’ll lose her job if she takes off even one shift, the project manager who is trying to “lean in”—all are facing an unfair expectation around their attendance. It’s common for women to show up and try their best even when they’re not feeling 100 percent well.

It’s not news that Hillary Clinton attended an event with pneumonia. What’s news is that we do this to women every day and have convinced ourselves that it’s normal behavior.

Photo of Everett Maroon standing in what was once his living room in Washington, DC, with him looking at the camera a little shyly, ignoring a bright lamp on in the background.
by Everett Maroon
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Everett Maroon is a memoirist, essayist, and fiction writer originally from New Jersey and now living in Walla Walla, Washington. His blog is transplantportation.com and he tweets at @EverettMaroon.

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